There’s Nothing Inevitable or Inescapable About Capitalism
Last week, we discussed how there’s no going back to the so-called golden age of capitalism. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take lessons from the past to inspire what we build in the future.
During this series, we’ve already considered how public services were once much stronger and more dynamic in Canada, and the ways that workers have developed plans for the future of their workplaces and industries. These examples certainly won’t be replicated in the future, but knowing they’re possible can help to inspire the better world we wish to create.
In 2008, the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher argued that we live under capitalist realism, where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. “Capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history,” Fisher wrote, creating what he described as being “more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”
This system not only ensures that we lack the historical context to realize that things can be different, but as we discussed a few weeks ago, places the onus on the individual to solve their own problems, instead of emphasizing how people must come together to find collective solutions to what are systemic problems.
In Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology, Lizzie O’Shea explains that when we become detached from our history, “the past that survives is a default genealogy, a mere reflection of the status quo, fixed and irrelevant. It loses its living value, its capacity to help the current generation actively shape a collective sense of self, leaving us isolated without a common sense of purpose or a forum to discuss these ideas.”
It’s quite obvious how history is used to prop up the status quo, most strikingly when looking at what historical moments are emphasized, or how they’re described to serve the goals of those in power. This is very clear in the United States, which has built a mythology often at odds with its history. Yet it also exists in Canada, for example in the relative ignorance of labour history, such as the Winnipeg General Strike, and the fight that was required to win universal healthcare.
Even more concretely, remember when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wanting to project a particular image of Canada, revived the story of the War of 1812? Before 2012, few Canadians likely knew much about it, but then it was suddenly everywhere.
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Harper chose to focus on that obscure piece of history instead of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which celebrated its 30th anniversary that same year, despite the crucial role the Charter has played in extending the rights of Canadians, including on abortion, language rights, inmates’ right to vote, same-sex marriage, collective bargaining and the right to die.
The rewriting of history by those in power to suit their purposes is also why there’s a strong tradition of left-wing histories that challenge these official narratives. The proliferation of people’s histories is a clear example of this, the most well-known of which is likely Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. O’Shea argues that “by stitching historical ideas and moments together and applying them to contemporary problems, it is possible to create a usable past” that will help to inspire modern movements.
That’s part of the goal of this newsletter, and in the next few issues its focus will be shifting a bit. Instead of drawing lessons from Canada’s recent history, and to a lesser degree the U.S. and United Kingdom, we’ll be looking at important left-wing moments in the past from which we can draw inspiration in the present. The first, and a personal favourite, will be the Paris Commune.
After receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, the late author Ursula K. Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings.” That’s something we can never forget.
Perspectives from around the world
Sara Mojtehedzadeh, labour reporter at the Toronto Star, explains why paid sick days are essential to a recovery and how Canada is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t require them.
Dan Guadagnolo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, explains how the Canadian Federation of Independent Business pushed the myth that the CERB made workers lazy.
Christian Favreau, a Montreal-based activist, writes about how community groups and unions are speaking out against any attempt at post-pandemic austerity.
Dan Darrah, a Toronto-based writer, criticizes the NDP’s latest push for a basic income, arguing that money would be better spent on public luxuries.
Sofia Osborne, a Vancouver-based environmental writer, explains the problem with how The Sims presents fighting climate change as a lifestyle choice.
Andrew Pendleton, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the New Economics Foundation, argues Britain’s high streets should be socialized to promote community, not consumption.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to KQED reporter Sam Harnett about how tech journalism legitimized the gig economy and its exploitation, and how California’s fight to make Uber reclassify its drivers as employees might finally yield results. Plus, at NBC News I argued that California shouldn’t blink in the face of Uber and Lyft’s threat to leave the state, and at Tribune, why transit is essential to fighting climate change for Tribune.